Worlds Beyond Our Solar System: The TRAPPIST-1 Exoplanets


Exciting news hit the scientific channels recently. NASA released data collected by the Spitzer Space Telescope confirming a discovery by the TRAPPIST team in Chile in 2015. A new exoplanet system had been discovered containing seven planets orbiting a red dwarf star, three of which are considered to be in the Goldilocks region or habitable zone of the star, with the potential of sustaining life.

Of course my immediate thought was to rush off and recommend the planets be named after the characters of the great UK TV show Red Dwarf. Planets named after Lister, Rimmer, Kryten, Cat and Holly, among others, seemed fitting and amusing to my fifteen year old self.

TRAPPIST-1 is an ultra cool red dwarf and has an effective temperature of under 2,700 K (2,430 °C; 4,400 °F). Being so much smaller than our own Solar system with the planets proximity to the star being so much closer the comparative energy delivered to the planets by their star is similar to our own system. This type of red dwarf has been theorised to contain a larger number of Earth sized planets and the current work by the Spitzer telescope appears to support that idea.

In size the planets appear to be similar to that of Earth, but the scale of the system is small, far smaller than 1 AU, in fact the whole system would fit within the orbit of Mercury in our own Solar system. The TRAPPIST-1 system can be said to be similar to the scale of Jupiter with its moons and orbital ratios. Distances between these Earth size planets would give any observer stood on the surface of one an exotic view of the nearest neighbouring planet, it being large enough and close enough to view weather patterns and perhaps surface detail.

But the wider scientific interest is intriguing. With a high number of planets in the habitable zone the probability of finding water is increased as is the chance of finding an environment capable of supporting life. Could any of these planets support life? Later this year the launch of the James-Web Space Telescope (JWST) will hopefully answer these questions. With its specialised infra-red technology the JWST will be able to analyse the atmosphere of each planet and discern its composition.

So, an incubator for life? We will need to watch the research closely to find out. But an incubator for a writer’s imagination, certainly. Adding these latest findings to the sea of data about the world and universe around us gives unlimited scope for adventure. Each discovery like that by the TRAPPIST team is fuel to the imagination and is exactly why science is such a springboard for so many writers. It’s the explorer in us all that wants to voyage to these distant places and see all there is to see, turn every stone and gaze upon new worlds.

I look forward to the upcoming JWST missions, to uncover more secrets of this amazing collection of alien exoplanets.

If you want to know more about the TRAPPIST-1 research findings, visit trappist.one.